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A Profile of the Future Lawbreaker

March 15, 1985|EDWARD CORNISH

Question: In the future will crime still be a problem? How will society deal with it?

Answer: There are reasons to fear a mounting level of crime in the United States in the years ahead.

Technological supercrooks will use computers and other high-tech methods to rob banks, corporations and other institutions of hundreds of millions of dollars. Global gangsters and terrorists may perpetrate crimes around the world with the assistance of jet aircraft, satellite communication links and networks of henchmen.

But the bulk of crime in the future probably will be committed by relatively small-time criminals, some of whom are not particularly familiar today.

One new style criminal may be the elderly person. Traditionally the elderly have been very law-abiding, but criminologists note that a variety of factors may cause them to become more prone to crime. For one thing, elderly persons will be more apt to have greater vigor than the aged in the past and to lack a family to help support them.

Women also appear to be taking up crime in greater numbers. Headlines proclaiming "Lady Robs Bank" may not seem remarkable in the future.

Younger Criminals

Children will get into serious crime at younger ages. Criminologist Steven Egger reports that there now are about 2,200 youth gangs with 96,000 members in 300 cities and towns across the U.S., a situation reminiscent of the futuristic movie "Clockwork Orange." The following trends are cause for worry on this score.

--The breakdown of the family. Sociologists long ago noted that criminals tend to come from broken homes where youngsters failed to receive the love and discipline required to turn a child into a fully civilized youth and adult.

--The urbanization of society. In times past people lived in villages or neighborhoods where everybody knew everybody else. If a child stole apples or broke a window, the parents would hear about it and punish the child. The growth of sprawling metropolises and high-speed transportation allows youths to commit misdeeds without parental knowledge or punishment.

--Declining belief in religion and moral law. Only a few decades ago, religious precepts were drummed into young people. "Thou shalt not steal" was a commandment whose violation invited the wrath of God. An increasing percentage of children now are growing up in an irreligious, even amoral, environment in which they are more likely to act on anti-social impulses.

Signs of a Stiffening

But there are signs of a stiffening in the public's will to stop crime and criminals. A man who shoots four youths trying to rob him on a New York subway is hailed as a hero by citizens fed up with rampant big city crime. Among some groups there is growing sentiment that law-abiding citizens must "get them before they get us." Neighborhood Watch groups have sprung up in many areas and are credited with helping catch a number of criminals.

The future could bring stronger measures.

You can already see some signs of what's coming. Buildings that once stood unguarded now have platoons of security guards equipped with radios, television monitors and firearms. Homes are equipped with electronic burglar alarms. Businesses use elaborate computer codes to prevent unauthorized access to vital documents. Banks design "smart" cards that can frustrate credit card thieves. The U.S. government considers new currency that will be difficult to counterfeit.

Police and private guard forces are using computers, voice prints, ultrasonic sensors, laser beams, stun guns and other high-tech equipment to battle criminals.

Even modern architecture takes crime into account. For example, the Washington, D.C., subway was carefully designed to forestall criminals; there are no columns or recesses where they can hide, and the walls are set back from station platforms so graffiti vandals can't reach them.

In the future drug treatments may be used to "cure" violent offenders. And alternatives to crowded jails might include sending convicted criminals to penal colonies on the moon or Mars or to a prison space ship, where inmates are doomed to travel endlessly through space.

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